Deion Sanders’ Rocky Mountain high is a low for Black colleges | College football

Say this much for Deion Sanders: He didn’t slink away under cover of darkness, quiet quit on the season or reach for another dog-eared page from the opportunist’s playbook.

Instead, the 55-year-old coach gathered up his Jackson State Tigers players one last time over the weekend and told them that, indeed, the breaking news was true – that the University of Colorado had hired him away. “It’s not about a bag,” he told the somber room. “I’ve been making money a long time and ain’t nowhere near broke. It is about an opportunity.”

As good ol’ fashion Mississippi scandals go, only the case swirling around Brett Favre tops this. Coach Prime, as he redubbed himself, is a singular phenomenon in sports, the great athlete who is also a great coach. He talks a good game too – rhyming like a preacher, turning podiums into pulpits, framing his coaching odyssey as a divine calling. “Usually, a coach is elevated or terminated,” he said of his new position in Colorado. If he sounds like a cleric, that’s because it’s one of many positions Sanders has occupied in his dizzyingly peripatetic career.

When Sanders arrived at Jackson in the fall of 2020, he didn’t just vow to turn around a program that had been a loser for much of the past decade. He said he’d flip the field for historically black colleges and universities to make “HBCUs” like Jackson State as attractive as predominantly white institutions like Colorado. And he was promising the moon at a time when the social justice movement had turned HBCUs into a cause for reparations.

And once again Sanders walked the talk, losing just five games out of 32, setting scoring records and selling out stadiums all the while. He lured away top recruits (starting with his quarterback son, Shedeur), prompted fellow NFL alums Eddie George and Hue Jackson to join him in the HBCU coaching ranks. He had ESPN covering the Tigers with intensity that’s typically reserved for the Dallas Cowboys or the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Sanders was right about the spotlight’s knack for finding him. It didn’t matter if he was peddling insurance in TV adverts with Bama’s Nick Saban, or getting stiff-armed out of a post game shug; little of what Sanders did at Jackson State went unnoticed. That he was also so generous about sharing his attention with the young Black men and women at Jackson State only further set him apart in a profession known for harboring white men with big egos and retrograde social values (ahem).

With the Colorado hire, Sanders becomes the 12th Black coach in college football’s top tier – and at a time when stalwarts like Florida Atlantic’s Willie Taggart and Stanford’s David Shaw are cycling out of their roles. It would be a shining moment for equity and fairness if it weren’t also such a dark day for HBCU football. Even though he ended his Jackson State tenure on a high note, winning a second straight conference championship last Saturday, the prevailing mood was downcast. “I think many Jackson State fans were holding out hope that the news wasn’t true, or he wouldn’t go through with it,” Tiffany Greene, who called Saturday’s game for ESPN, told me.

Sanders’ impact went far beyond Jackson State in his three years there, after all. He boosted the local economy and awareness of Jackson’s colleges and high schools. He shone a light on Jackson’s water crisis, which forced a shutdown of schools, colleges and businesses. Earlier this fall Sanders’ team survived on bottled water donations and lived in a hotel because of the water crisis; the cost, $15,000 a night, isn’t money Jackson State keeps lying around. “How can we go out there, dominate like that, and take a child back to something that is shut down and you have no water?” he said after the Tigers season opener. “You can’t even flush the darn toilet. You have to think about that stuff.”

Not only did Sanders appear to be invested in reviving HBCUs’ reputation for grooming pro talent like Walter Payton (Jackson State), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) and Shannon Sharpe (Savannah State), Coach Prime was fully engaged in the bigger, much trickier job of creating self-sustaining Black communities. That he had come so far in such a short period only heightened expectations. That there was still so much work to do didn’t matter because Sanders, reputation aside, kept cracking on. It didn’t seem long before the day would come when he cut the ribbon at a new stadium and punctuate the moment with news of a blockbuster HBCU television rights pact, or a similar tide that lifts all ships.

By staying at Jackson State, Sanders could have become even bigger than he ever was as a two-sport, twin Super Bowl-winning, double football hall of famer. Given that, as he says, he’s not hurting for money, he didn’t have to operate like some coach who paid his dues sleeping at the office while barely making minimum wage. Sanders could have been Jackson State’s version of Eddie G Robinson, the trailblazer who launched tiny Grambling State into a pigskin power – a coaching immortal. But now that Coach Prime is gone, well, much of that hope is too.

Nothing against Colorado. It’s a mint of a program, the Power Five equivalent of a double-digit miles Lamborghini. Before a decade-long swoon the Buffaloes ranked among college football’s elite, laying claim to the 1990 national championship and the 1994 Heisman trophy winner before an odious culture of alcohol and sex abuse toppled them. With Shedeur Sanders leading the parade of transfer students Coach Prime brings with him, there’s little reason to believe that the Buffaloes couldn’t dominate a listless Pac 12 conference and emerge as national title contenders soon.

The chance to compete at college football’s highest level wasn’t all that attracted Sanders. There was also the pay bump (to a reported $4.5m from $300,000, not that he needs the money – assuming Colorado can actually pay him) and the Buffaloes’ first-rate facilities. In his introductory news conference, Sanders praised Boulder as a “crime-free city.” For a Jackson State community currently grappling with a recent campus homicide case, the throwaway line must have stung.

Deion Sanders uses his mobile phone to illustrate how Rick George, right, Colorado athletic director, kept in touch while courting Sanders.
Deion Sanders uses his mobile phone to illustrate how Rick George, right, Colorado athletic director, kept in touch while courting Sanders. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP

Jackson State, though a notch below Colorado in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, was hardly a cakewalk for Coach Prime. He took the reins during Covid, has only recently recovered from having two toes amputated, and spent a chunk of this year working out of a hotel during the Jackson water crisis. His tenure kicked off with burglars ransacking his office. If those aren’t justifiable reasons to move on, consider the massive stage he just secured for his son – who is rounding into a top NFL draft prospect.

Sanders is clearly hurt by perceptions that he sold out his people by not just going west, but to city that’s 0.9{515baef3fee8ea94d67a98a2b336e0215adf67d225b0e21a4f5c9b13e8fbd502} Black. “The thing that alarms me the most is just because I’m leaving Jackson, they think that I’m leaving African Americans,” Sanders thundered. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I’m Black. I can never leave who I am, what I am, how I am or how I go about being that.”

Still: Without Jackson State taking him in and washing the stains of his checkered high school coaching career (once a resume sticking point), Sanders never reaches this Rocky Mountain high. But worse than seeing him take his man of the cleats act to another campus – but not before returning to lead Jackson State in the Celebration Bowl – is the realization that he is who he’s always been: a hired gun. He might not borrow from the opportunist’s playbook, but the game he’s playing at is no different.

Francis McGee

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